Love and Loathing
Miss Margaret Huston was a young lady as pretty and accomplished as any, and was impeded only by occasionally saying things, that on later recollection she quite regretted, and that most singular failing of being only too human. She was the younger daughter of a most unremarkable family of moderate means living in the country, and her childhood passed away quietly, marred only by those simple agonies that every child undergoes. It ended when she reached the momentous age of eighteen and as she now knew everything there was to know, it was decided that she would have her first Season in London the following spring.
In spite of being a most sensible, intelligent girl, Miss Margaret had a romantic nature, and these two doubtful virtues combined in her to produce tragic results. Her sense made her see the world realistically and her heart broke at the sight. She was most concerned with her own fate, most people are, and it seemed quite bleak to her. She knew she had not much money, and not enough beauty to make up for the lack. It seemed doubtful that any young could fall in love with her in spite of her faults, and she resolved against marriage for anything other than love.
It was thus that at the advanced age of seventeen she had made up her mind never to marry.
She knew, of course, that there were several men in the neighborhood whose attentions she could attract with proper encouragement, but as Margaret did not love them, the encouragement was not given.
However, one of them, a Mr. Davis, needed no encouragement, proper or otherwise. He was silly, unattractive, and rich, and added to those great faults, he was extremely attentive to Margaret, and unfailingly proposed to her every Thursday. The lady despised him.
Margaret had an older sibling, and this sibling was a sister, not yet twenty, named Rachel. Their small difference in age and great similarity in temperament (though, being older, Rachel was often the more sensible of the two) made them constant companions, and eternal friends.
So our story begins.
"Dear Maggie," said Rachel to her one morning, while they were at their embroidery, "Please cease this pacing about the room. You're making me dizzy!"
"I can't!" cried Margaret, embracing her for the countless time, "I am to go to London!"
"Really? Thank you for informing me," said her sister dryly, recovering her work.
"Stop teasing, Rachel. You were just this way last year when you went to Town with the Richardsons."
"Yes, but I did not start fretting till December, at least, and if you act this way in August, I dread to think of you four months from now."
Margaret only glared at her, but went to work on her embroidery, an excited smile hovering on her face.
The Richardsons were dear friends of the Hustons. They had two daughters, Emma and Louisa, who were aged seventeen and twenty, and as such could be expected to be good friends with the Misses Huston. Indeed, Miss Emma was on excellent terms with both, especially Margaret, whose dearest friend, excepting her sister, she had been since their childhood. Miss Louisa Richardson however was despised my Miss Margaret (who could either love or despise), and barely tolerated by Miss Rachel, with good reason. With her lush dark hair and soulful hazel eyes, she could perhaps be thought beautiful, but that beauty was marred by the ever-dissatisfied expression on her face, her vanity, and her selfishness. She was a terribly mercenary young lady, and could only look down on everyone she encountered. There was a brother as well, but he was away at sea, and had not been seen for many years.
It was this family that would host a modest ball in the first week of September, to which Margaret looked forward to, for although it was not as grand as a London ball would be, it would come sooner, and so took precedence.
The next fortnight was spent in a flurry of preparations, for in that quiet part of the country even a small ball was a great occasion indeed. Margaret and Rachel were fitted for new gowns, although their mother was certain that one of their old ones would do just as well. Finally, the night arrived, and after spending the afternoon getting ready the Huston family set off for the Richardsons' estate, a mere four miles away.
They arrived to find the house aglow with light. It was a most lovely night for a ball, the remaining warmth of summer tempered by a light autumn breeze. At the door were Mr. and Mrs. Richardson, together with their daughters waiting to receive them.
"Welcome," said Mrs. Richardson with a polite smile that warmed quickly when she saw their friends.
Mrs. Huston looked about the room and sighed, "You have done a marvelous job, Eleanor. I could never have managed things so well."
Meanwhile Margaret and Rachel were already deep in conversation with Emma Richardson about how marvelous a time they were sure to have, and all the people who were coming. Louisa only looked on with a falsely polite expression, while appraising their gowns, and finding them certainly inferior to her own.
Then, apologizing to their hosts for detaining them so long they went in, with promises of having an enjoyable evening. Emma soon joined them, as the dancing was about to begin.
While trying to separate themselves from Louisa, which was simple, as she was instantly in search of better company, the three young ladies encountered Mr. Thornton, a young gentleman who was considered the eligible in the county, and whom none of the three would admit to being in love with.
He bowed, and directed his first remark to Miss Emma,
"Miss Richardson, I must congratulate you on arranging all this," he motioned about the room, "Your sister must have given you much advice, being more experienced in such matters."
"Oh yes," said Margaret, with a light laugh, "I'm sure her advice was most fore coming."
Emma blushed, "Yes, she was very helpful. Now you must excuse me, I should see to the other guests." She left them with a smile.
The lady spoken of joined them soon after. Flouncing by in a gown in what she considered the latest style, she condescended to stop and talk to them.
"This promises to be quite a night," she cried, "Though not nearly as diverting as the balls in London, wouldn't you agree, my dear Miss Huston?" she asked Rachel with a smile.
Not wanting to be impolite, she answered simply, "Yes, they were very grand."
"And I enjoyed myself exceedingly!" continued Louisa, "I was often the belle of the ball, if I do say so myself," she added modestly, "I had a wonderful number of admirers."
Margaret nearly choked at this, from her sister's stories knowing it to be a terrible exaggeration, but only whispered to Mr. Thornton, "I'm sure her admirers could be wondered at," and looked for a way of escape.
Fortunately, the music started then, and Mr. Thornton asked quickly if she would do him the honor. Although sorry to be leaving her sister with a most disappointed Ms. Richardson, Margaret readily assented.
As the lively country-dance began she breathed an audible sigh of relief.
"You will think me extremely uncharitable," she said to her partner, her eyes twinkling.
"No indeed," he replied, "Your thoughts would be uncharitable, I grant you, if they were not true."
"Then you agree with me?"
"Agree with you might not be as dangerous as disagreeing, my dear, but it is still an undertaking that shouldn't be considered lightly."
Margaret looked indignant, but they were separated before she could make a retort. When they were dancing together once again, she couldn't help asking,
"Have you considered it, now?"
"Of course," he answered.
"And do you?"
"Do I what?"
"Agree with me!"
"What could you possibly mean?"
"Oh!" she cried, trying not to laugh, "You are insufferable!"
The evening progressed, and Margaret was not surprised to find herself sitting down during several of the dances, although it upset her. She knew however, although she wouldn't have minded being contradicted, that she had not much to make her noticeable in a crowded room. Emma had a naturally grace, and blushing beauty she seemed entirely unaware of, and Rachel had a gentle smile and manner that made even the shyest of men unafraid to ask her. While apologizing profusely for leaving her alone, both of her friends spent the entire evening on their feet. Just as she was without a partner once again she was spotted by Mr. Davies, as he walked about the ballroom. It would have been impolite to retreat now, when he had already seen her, so Margaret braced herself, and smiled at him politely.
"Good evening, my dear Miss Huston," he greeted her, executing an elaborate bow and lingering over her hand, "How are you this very fine evening?"
"Quite well, thank you. I was just resting for a moment, all the dancing has tired me," she lied, for she didn't want him to think she was without a partner.
"Ah...dancing," he said with a smile, "a very worthy pass time. I do not dance, of course, unless I have a very lovely partner," he glanced at her meaningfully, "but when I do, I'm sure you know that it would not be an exaggeration to say that I am a true proficient. Perhaps you would like to take a stroll with me on the balcony?" his smile grew even wider, until Margaret was afraid that it would split his face in half. She knew however, that to take a chance of finding herself alone with Mr. Davies would be dangerous indeed, and quickly thought up a story about having a slight cold and being afraid the cool air would aggravate it. He replied with a show of concern for her health, to which Margaret answered only that
"It is truly a very slight cold; so slight as to be almost nonexistent..."
The ball was over and Margaret went home, perhaps in slightly lower spirits than she arrived, but that could only be expected.
The next morning, after a rather late awakening, she sat with her sister and mother, talking over the previous night's events. Mrs. Huston, who sat nearest the window, happened to look out then and comment that,
"Mrs. Richardson and her daughter are coming up the lane. How lovely."
"Which daughter, Mama?" asked Margaret a bit anxiously, while Rachel smiled.
"Emma, of course. Louisa never feels up for visits the day after a ball."
When the two joined them, Mrs. Huston and Mrs. Richardson retired to another room to talk. As they left Emma smiled at her friends,
"It is me to-day, but tomorrow Louisa may come to visit."
Margaret looked quite put out, but tempered her anger, as it was her friend's sister that was being discussed. Rachel, seeing her sister's reaction asked the reason for the visit.
"Mother is making her. She says if you three are to go to London together," here Emma looked slightly wistful, "Louisa must get to know you better."
"If she doesn't know us well enough after all these years, I fail to see how a visit will make any difference," laughed Margaret.
"Those were my thoughts," said her friend, "But Mother, when she makes up her mind, is a force to be reckoned with."
The conversation then moved to more pleasant topics, such as the gentlemen who attended the ball, and more specifically, Mr. Thornton. Emma blushed furiously at the mention of the name, a fact that didn't go unnoticed by Margaret.
"Emma," she said gently, "Are you in love with Mr. Thornton?"
Shocked at her secret being so discovered Emma could say nothing, while Rachel admonished her sister for her frankness. At length, Emma's blushing grew deeper as she confessed.
"Perhaps...I...you might not call it love, but...I do like him exceedingly. I'm sure I have for years."
"Why, that's wonderful!" cried Margaret, embracing her friend.
"It is not wonderful," she replied sadly, "I do not have your energy and lively conversation. I doubt he even notices me."
"Nonsense! And you certainly shouldn't fear any competition from me! He is a friend to me, and nothing more. Now tell me, has he not been very kind to you?"
"I have observed that Mr. Thornton is very kind to all young ladies he encounters," Rachel remarked.
Her sister glared at her, "I am trying to make a point, pray don't contradict me. Now, Emma, be truthful."
"I suppose...and he did dance with me last night...but never was I led to think..."
Margaret stopped her, "Say no more. You are truly the loveliest, kindest creature I have ever met, and if Mr. Thornton is not madly in love with you I shall think much the less of him."
That evening, the sisters talked as they prepared for bed.
"Maggie," sad Rachel with concern as she brushed her hair before the glass, "Are you quite sure that you are not upset?"
"Upset?" laughed she, "Why would I be?"
"Well," replied her sister cautiously, "I have always thought that you cared for Mr. Thornton."
"I do care for him," Margaret said with a smile.
"Yet Emma's revelation doesn't upset you?"
"Why should it?" a pause, "Oh, you think I meant I was in love with him! Nothing should be further from the truth! As I said to Emma, he is just a friend to me. I could never love him!"
"Why?" Rachel said, frowning, "He is a most amiable gentleman."
"Yes, he is very amiable, but Rachel, there are thousands of such amiable gentlemen!"
"You wish an unamiable husband, then?"
She shook her head a bit sadly, "The kind of husband I wish would never wish for me. But the alternative is marriage without any excitement or adventure. I could not bear to live without adventure!"
"Oh, Maggie," she shook her head, "Emma and I are the furthest thing from adventurous, and yet I hazard to think we are your friends. What does that tell you?"
"Simply that opposites attract, nothing more," replied Margaret lightly, not pausing to consider the meaning of her words.
Louisa paid her visit the next day. Little can be said about it but that the three girls sat in utter silence for half an hour, excepting Rachel's weak attempts at conversation, and at the end of it each were quite hearty in their assurances that they were now the best of friends.
Several more days passed quietly, and one morning Margaret woke up to discover it was Thursday. She spent the morning in ill spirits, anticipating Mr. Davies' visit. Her suitor didn't disappoint her. He appeared, took her hand and wasting no time in pleasantries asked if she would do him the honor of marrying him.
"Oh Mr. Davies, why do you continue this? You have been here each week for months now, and you should see that my feelings have remained quite constant. I will not marry you."
"But my dear Miss Huston! I have continued in hope of one day winning your love."
"I assure you," she said a bit wearily, "That will not happen. I don't, and never will love you, and I think that on closer examination of your feelings you will find that you don't love me."
"You doubt me then! Oh, Miss Huston, you break my heart! But I will prove myself to you. I will remain constant!"
"As will I. So to spare us both trouble, I propose a solution. Instead of you coming here every Thursday, why don't we both simply assume that you did come and propose, and that I refused you? The same amount of business will be accomplished, and less time and effort expended for it. Don't you agree?"
Though feeling as if somehow he was being cheated, Mr. Davies accepted her plan, saying that he would do anything for her, and soon after Margaret succeeded in ushering him out, and ran to tell her sister that perhaps her problem was now solved.
Mrs. Huston, not wishing to be outdone by her neighbors felt it her obligation to host some social event in response to the ball. Her husband was quite opposed to the plan, and they compromised in the end by a small dinner, consisting of only their dearest friends. The Richardsons were there of course, as well as Mr. Thornton and his mother, and the Kings, who, while not particular friends had a cousin well married in London, so it was clear that they had to be invited. Several other persons besides, but mercifully no Mr. Davies - Margaret was quite insistent.
The guests were in the drawing room, some playing cards, some talking. Margaret and Mr. Thornton were deep in conversation that grew more impassioned by the minute and it was clear they would never agree. Finally, Margaret, seeing her friend nearby called out,
"Emma, if you don't mind, could you join us?"
Miss Richardson, with a covertly displeased glance at her, came over, trying not to look at her friend's companion.
"What is it?" she said softly.
"Mr. Thornton and I were discussing," she caught his glance and laughed, "Or rather, arguing over, the topic of novels. Could you help us resolve it?"
"I truly don't know much on the subject," Emma said shyly, "I don't think I could help."
"Oh, I'm sure you can!" cried Margaret, perhaps too loudly, "I lent you several a few weeks ago, what was your opinion?"
Then, once her friends were talking, she quietly slipped away, feeling quite satisfied with her clever act.
She became rather less satisfied when she was accosted by Mr. King and forced into conversation. He was an extremely talkative man, Margaret had trouble staying quiet at times as well, and since when one is engaged in conversation with an extremely talkative person one has no choice but to keep silent, could it be wondered at that Margaret would have rather avoid him?
Mr. King could not, however be avoided, and soon she became privy to the life stories of all his near and distant relations. At length he came to his London cousin, a topic in which his companion was slightly more interested.
"Yes, Anthony. You are to visit him this spring, isn't that right? I'm sure you'll enjoy yourself and capture the heart of every gentleman there. Ah, I remember my youthful days..."
"Mr. King? Your cousin?" questioned Margaret with some impatience.
"Which cousin? Oh yes, Anthony. We were speaking of him. Lovely wife he has, though she's nothing to my Amelia!" Mrs. King was just walking past. "She was the jewel of the Season, about twenty years back, rich too, and there were all sorts of men fighting over her hand. But of all of them, she chose Anthony. Funny thing, love. I remember when I met Amelia..."
"Yes, yes, of course. What was I saying? Anthony. So, they married, although her father objected of course, him having little money and all. They've got a daughter now, Joanna."
"Tell me about her."
"Pretty young thing, about your age. Very educated. Amelia says she'll never catch a husband with her nose stuck in a book, and she's probably right, as usual."
He continued on to his other relatives, and Margaret had no success in trying to return him to the subject of Joanna King. Growing tired of his chatter, she insisted that she simply must introduce him to Miss Louisa Richardson, and when he was warmly speaking of his second cousin's stepmother and she discussing her gown, Margaret made her escape.
"Miss Huston!" cried Mr. Thornton as he tried to catch up with her. The young lady was enjoying a walk about the grounds surrounding her house when he paid his call and after being told she was outside he had decided to accompany her.
Margaret turned around then, her face flushed with the autumn chill.
"Mr. Thornton! What brings you here?" she asked with a bright smile as he reached her.
"Your sister said you were out walking. May I join you?"
She took the offered arm, "Of course. A moment ago I was thankful for my solitude, but now I see that a walk can be properly enjoyed only in company."
"Really? What caused such a change in thinking?"
"Your arrival, of course."
"Miss Huston, you flatter me."
Her blush deepened as she smiled again. They continued in silence for a while until Mr. Thornton asked,
"You are looking forward to your journey to London, then?"
"Oh, yes," Margaret laughed, "I can barely sit still! Poor Rachel is loosing all patience with me."
"The young men will be falling at your feet."
She blushed again, "Now it is you who is flattering me, Mr. Thornton."
Upon returning from her walk, Margaret collapsed happily on a sofa, still in her coat, a smile on her face. However, as she paused to evaluate the reason for her happiness, it evaporated like a half-remembered dream, and the smile curved into a frown.
What was there to be happy about? She had just been on a walk with Mr. Thornton, and behaved herself abominably at that. Blushing like a heroine in those novels they so often argued about, and not one kind word about Emma! Poor Emma! She was right in that she wasn't very talkative, and Mr. Thornton must see her kind and forgiving heart if he is to fall in love with her. And how was that to be accomplished if Margaret, Emma's best friend, did not help her? What had she done instead? Monopolized Mr. Thornton's attentions, never once thinking of Emma! Oh, she was a terrible friend, to both of them.
Within half an hour she had succeeded in making herself quite miserable.
She could not be miserable for long, however. After berating herself soundly she set to work helping Mr. Thornton and Emma like never before. Him the efforts confused, her embarrassed, but as Margaret was quite certain that what she was doing was for the best she continued throwing them together all throughout the winter.
As Mrs. Richardson kept insisting on them getting better acquainted, Louisa paid several more visits to the two Huston girls. During them Margaret quite enjoyed dropping small hints of an attachment between Emma and Mr. Thornton, as it was long known that Louisa was determined to "catch" him. However, even as Margaret tormented her, she still had lingering doubts over the success of her matchmaking.
With the coming spring approached her removal to London, and still nothing was settled. While grieved that she would not be present to witness her friends' happiness, Margaret was very eager for the long awaited trip, and could talk of nothing else. In the last weeks before it time seemed to slow to a crawl, and no employment could hold her attention for long. Restless, apprehensive, impatient, she was sure that the day would never arrive. However, after much agony it was the eve of her departure. All things being packed Margaret had abandoned even the pretense of employment and spent the evening staring out the window moodily. It was thus that she was found by a servant coming to announce the arrival of Mr. Thornton.
She arose, somewhat surprised, as he entered perhaps a bit hesitantly. After greetings were finished, she bid him to sit down and he pulled up a chair near her.
There was a short silence, during which Margaret thought he looked slightly down cast, but did not comment on it. Finally Mr. Thornton said quietly,
"So you leave tomorrow?"
She nodded, "Yes."
"And I suppose you'll be glad to be rid of all this rustic country society."
Margaret looked at him in shock. The words were spoken with a bitterness she seldom heard from Mr. Thornton, and she was at a loss for the reason.
"Of course not," she said simply, "I love all my friends here dearly, and I will miss them. If I seem eager to be off, it is just excitement at a change in scenery. In a few month's time I shall be just as eager to be back, I'm sure."
Her words failed to comfort, however, as Mr. Thornton replied, not meeting her eyes, "If you do return, you will surely be engaged."
Margaret was more confused by the minute at his behavior, and could only give every assurance of this not being at all in her plans.
"But why do you say these things?" she asked, "Why do you seem so dejected? I'll feel terrible leaving without knowing the reason for all this."
"It's simply that...can't you at least tell me what I've done to deserve your disapproval?"
"Disapproval? Mr. Thornton, I'm afraid I don't understand you at all."
"I'd like to know I did to cause you to avoid me these past months."
"Me, avoiding you! I assure you, you are mistaken. I've just..." but she couldn't admit her matchmaking scheme, of course, "I haven't been avoiding you. You should have told me earlier, and this misunderstanding would have been cleared up."
Vastly relieved, he apologized for jumping to conclusions, and they parted on most amiable terms. As Margaret returned to the window, she was surprised to find herself rather less restless than before. The next day dawned gray and overcast, and Margaret couldn't help succumbing to the dreary mood. The Richardsons met them for breakfast, a meal that was eaten in silence, even by Louisa.
They went outside where the two carriages were waiting for them. Margaret and Emma embraced and neither pair of eyes was dry as one promised to write faithfully, and the other wished desperately to be going. Then, just as the families were ready to depart, a man on horseback approached them. As he drew nearer he resolved into a very out of breath Mr. Thornton.
Margaret could not deny being glad to see him, but puzzled as for his reason in this last minute farewell. After all, Emma wasn't leaving.
After exchanging some words with both sets of parents, a frosty greeting from Louisa, and a friendly one from Rachel, Mr. Thornton took Margaret's hand and said,
"I will miss you."
"And I you," she replied and with a final smile the carriages drew away, leaving behind Miss Richardson and Mr. Thornton, each waving until the last clouds of dust disappeared over the horizon.
Their journey was a long and tiring one, but at last it ended and the Hustons could retire to the house they had taken (the previous year when only Rachel had made the trip, the Richardsons had been kind enough to let her stay with them). The next few days consisted mainly of shopping, and were not very eventful. The one important thing that did occur was that Mrs. Huston met Mrs. King in a shop and arrangements for a visit were made.
Both Margaret and Rachel, who wished for a companion other than each other in Miss King, and knew that her mother was highly placed in society, eagerly anticipated this visit. As they got ready Rachel asked her sister,
"You had a talk with Mr. King before we left, did he tell you anything of his relatives?"
"Oh yes," laughed Margaret, "A vast deal! But little about his London cousins. Of Miss King I know only that she is well educated, a fact that "his dear Amelia" is opposed to. I've never met another person who could talk so much, yet say so little!" At her sister's reproving glance she sighed, "I see what you're thinking, Rachel. You think I'm being unkind. And I am, I suppose. But really, you should try it some time, it relieves stress wonderfully. I'm surprised doctors don't prescribe it!"
Rachel simply shook her head with a laugh.
The Kings lived in a very fashionable part of London and all Mrs. Huston and her daughters encountered as they entered seemed to speak of great wealth. As they waited to meet their hosts Margaret thought that while Mrs. King's parents might have been displeased at her marriage, they certainly didn't cast her off, or anything of the sort.
The whole family received them. Mr. King was a thin, nervous man who found an excuse to leave them as soon as politeness allowed. His wife, a grand, very handsome lady with a most stubbornly set face greeted the ladies cordially and she and Mrs. Huston were soon engaged in conversation, leaving the three girls together.
Margaret found Miss Joanna King to look quite unlike both of her parents. She had shiny dark hair, wide dark eyes, and her entire face, while undoubtedly pretty, seemed to speak of seriousness and responsibility. She gave them a small smile and they sat down to talk politely of the weather, each finding nothing wrong in the other, but at the same time finding nothing in common with themselves.
Thus the morning was spent, not unpleasantly, but not in a manner either very warm, or very friendly.
On the carriage ride home Mrs. Huston could only talk of how very kind Mrs. King had been, and as this was not a subject on which her daughters could legitimately comment, they were left to talk amongst themselves.
"So, what did you think of Miss King?" Rachel asked.
"She's agreeable enough, I suppose," answered her sister gloomily.
Rachel laughed, "You would prefer her to be a great lover of poetry, oppressed by cruel parents and forced to marry against her will, while her one true love must sail across the high seas to seek his fortune!"
This elicited a smile from Margaret, "It's just that she seems so terribly dull. But I will not trust first impressions. Perhaps she is simply uncomfortable with strangers and another meeting will be enough to draw forth great tales of woe from her."
The Kings soon reciprocated by calling on them, and were fortunate enough to find the entire family at home. Mr. King and Mr. Huston weren't with them long, for as they were both pleasant if completely uninteresting people, they got on together wonderfully and soon went off to some location known only by them, leaving the ladies to entertain themselves. Mrs. King and Mrs. Huston started a conversation, during which the former informed the latter that she would host a dance in several days time to which she and her family were of course invited. This was most gratifying to both, as one had the pleasure of being kind, and the other that of receiving kindness that was beneficial to her and her daughters.
Miss King meanwhile suggested that the three of them go for a walk, as she had seen that Margaret and Rachel were on the verge of leaving when she arrived with her family. This plan was readily agreed to and the three young ladies set off.
As they drew farther and farther away from the house it was as if a magical transformation had come over Joanna King. She slowly became more animated, and they soon found topics to talk about besides the weather. Then, as if coming to a resolution, Miss King said,
"I'm dreadfully sorry if I'm been very formal with you during our last meeting. There is a reason for it, if you would allow me to explain."
Her companions were quite pleased and begged her to continue.
"I'm afraid...indeed, I'm sure, that this will sound exceeding silly, but I can't leave you to think that I'm dull and distant when I feel we might become friends, so I must give my reason. You see, my mother wants me to marry someone rich, to secure my place in life. How she's managed to forget the circumstances of her own marriage, I can't imagine! But back to the topic at hand. Such a marriage is obviously not very appealing for me, so I have done all I can to prevent it," seeing Margaret's enraptured expression and Rachel's sympathetic one she was encouraged to continue, "I will be frank with you. I have twenty thousand pounds, and am considered to be beautiful by some. There is only one thing I have at my disposal that can repulse fortune hunters, and that is intelligence. Most men don't want a sensible wife. So I have done all in power to appear as educated, bookish, and dull as I possibly can. But the act is certainly not for your benefit, and I feel safe confiding my secret to you." She paused, with an uncertain smile and tugged nervously at her gloves.
Margaret looked at her wondering, "I never imagined...why, this is amazing! I feel for you completely. But to think, I was so sure..."
"I'm glad to see that I'm sure a good actress," smiled Miss King, "But let us forget this. I only wanted to explain."
They assured her that they agreed with her and the rest of the walk proceeded pleasantly. As they prepared to reenter the house, Rachel said,
"Thank you for sharing your secret with us. We might not share your plight, but we do understand it." And while her tone and expression were all that was amiable, there was a note in her voice that her sister didn't quite understand.
Mr. Huston and Mr. King soon returned and their visitors left them. Finding Rachel alone in the small library, Margaret decided to question her about it.
"What did you mean by what you said to Miss King?"
Her sister glanced up from her book in surprise and then beckoned her sister to sit in the chair next to hers, "I'm glad she didn't understand me as well as you, Maggie. I do regret it. But it was so hard to hear her complain about being beautiful and wealthy."
Margaret sat, deep in thought, for a few moments then nodded, "I see what you mean. But odd as it is for me to be more charitable than you, I find it hard to blame her. After all, wealth doesn't guarantee happiness, and I saw her problems as a testament to that."
"You're right, of course."
"I know that isn't what's really bothering you."
"Maggie! What do you mean?"
Taking her sister's hand gently she replied, "I'm your only sister, and we've always been close, so it's hard for me not to notice. You feel that you're getting older and your prospects of being happily settled in life are getting worse. But you shouldn't fear that. Women more than five years your senior find matches every day, and some day I'm sure you'll be glad you didn't rush into a marriage simply to be secure and respectable."
Rachel's eyes glistened with tears as she gave her hand a squeeze, "I know you're right, and I shouldn't worry. But I find it so hard to see why any man might possibly want to marry me."
Margaret smiled, "You're kind and wise, and very pretty. I don't see how any man might possibly not want to marry you. Don't despair."
In the few days preceding Mrs. King's dance, the sisters became better acquainted with her daughter. While their temperaments, lifestyles, and values were so fundamentally different that in other circumstances perhaps they would have been become friends at all, as it was they were glad of companionship.
Both Rachel and Margaret were quite eager for that night, as it would herald their official entrance into London society. Their mother, in fond recollections of her own youth, assured them that it would be the beginning of a whirl of social engagements that would last throughout the season, but neither sister could be as optimistic. Their apprehension nearly equaled their excitement.
The day before, the sisters were enjoying a quiet morning reading and doing embroidery when some relief arrived in the form of a letter from Miss Emma Richardson, sent in response to the one Margaret sent her shortly after their arrival in London.
"Well, Maggie, what does she write?" asked Rachel as Margaret tore open the letter, "Anything about Mr. Thornton?" she added with a smile.
"There is a mention. Here, let me read it to you," said Margaret and began reading the letter.
I hope you are enjoying your stay. I miss you terribly! There isn't much news to relate to you, and none of our humble country affairs could ever equal the excitement of London. However, I shall do my best.
Mr. Thornton called yesterday. I know you are eager for a mention of him, but I shall have to disappoint you by saying that he did not drop to one knee and declare his undying love at any point during the visit. He did however inquire after you and asked that I send his regards in my next letter.
There isn't too much else to tell you, for I doubt you would be interested in the health of our cows.
Please write to me and tell me all about the parties and assemblies you attend. I have only your missives to comfort me as I pine away in the country, for Louisa is no help at all (did she really refuse a marriage proposal from a Duke? I find it highly doubtful).
I hope Rachel doesn't mind that I did not send a separate letter, for I know you will read this aloud to her. Please continue enjoying the Season and remember fondly your poor, lovesick friend,
"She jokes," said Margaret as she finished, "But I know she really is sad about not coming with us.
"Of course she is, so were you last year. But her time will come."
"Oh, Rachel," cried her sister, throwing up her hands in exasperation, "Why must you always be so sensible?"
"One of us must be," she replied, for even if at several times in her life she had been a flutter of nerves, she would be certain never to admit it to her younger sister.
The next day finally arrived and lengthy preparations had begun for the dance. The girls wore the new gowns they had purchased in the first days of their stay, and both looked as pretty as several hours of fussing by their maid could make them as they boarded the carriage that would take them to the Kings. Even inside Margaret couldn't help smoothing her gown and running her hands over her dark-blond hair to make sure everything was in place. Rachel looked at her indulgently, even she wondered whether green was really the best color to bring out her eyes, as her mother had suggested.
These worries, however, important as they were, had to be laid aside as they entered the house and greeted the Kings. As they walked about, occasionally greeting acquaintances, they came upon Joanna King, who in an airy dress of light blue muslin drifted about the room with the expression of one who submitting to responsibility, but wishing so very much to be elsewhere and taking absolutely no pleasure in the task.
Her eyes twinkled as she saw Margaret and Rachel, even as her lips lifted into a weary smile,
"Miss Huston, Miss Margaret, I hope you will enjoy this evening. Perhaps, as you don't know many people here, you will allow me to make a few introductions?" She led them away and as they reached a shaded alcove smiled more widely,
"I do hope you excuse the display, but you know how I must behave in public. Perhaps, as I said, I can familiarize you with the guests?"
The sisters, who until then had felt terribly uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings, assented eagerly and Joanna began, nodding towards a group of ladies clustering about a young gentleman,
"In the center you will find Mr. John Brandan, quite the catch. About him are the hunters, although they seem even more tightly packed today, for reasons I'm not aware of. Among them you'll find Lady Caroline Ashwood, that tall, stately young woman, and Sophia and Giselle Bordeax, just come from the continent to visit some relations," she added in a tone of exaggerated haughtiness, "Also Miss Hughes, Miss Garwood, Miss Catherine Williams, and Miss Rivers. Julia Livingston is usually with them, but today she seems to be standing as far apart as she can, I wonder why? Oh, and Anna Preston," She motioned to a rather plain, though well dressed young woman who looked as if she was usually referred to as ‘Oh, and...'. "That should cover the most prominent young people here, the rest you will surely meet later. Now enjoy yourselves, and let me return to my duty as hostess." Then, steeling her daze into one of total indifference, Miss King breezed away.
Rachel was soon spirited off by one of the young men Miss King had not deemed prominent, and Margaret was left to fend for herself. Not finding offers of marriage, or even a dance, forthcoming, she wandered over to the small balcony, which she trusted to be deserted in the midst of a lively dance, for a breath of fresh air. The moon was out, although a few clouds still peppered the sky, and the stars not covered by them, while not as spectacular as those in the country were still an awe-inspiring sight. As Margaret walked about leisurely in the moonlight, her peaceful mood was broken when she noticed a dark silhouette standing on the opposite side of the balcony, with his back to her.
Her curiosity quickly overcame her shock at not being alone and she silently walked over to the figure. As she neared, he turned around, and she was surprised to find herself looked into the sad eyes of Mr. John Brandan.
Margaret started back, and although she wasn't certain whom she had thought to find on the balcony, she was sure that Mr. Brandan would have been the last person she expected.
He also seemed surprised to see her, although his reaction was tempered by some deep melancholy. More to break the tension of the moment than out of any apparent interest he asked,
"What brings you here, Miss...? I don't believe we have been introduced."
"Margaret Huston," she replied with a small curtsy, "I went out for a breath of fresh air. May I ask the same of you?" Then she blushed, becoming for the first time aware of the impropriety of their situation, and of her question. Mr. Brandan, however, did not seem to notice this, but replied only,
"Thereby hangs a tale! I don't think you wish to hear it Miss Huston, as it doesn't concern you in the least."
"Mr. Brandan," Margaret replied, for as he had not introduced himself to her, she thought that perhaps he had assumed she would know his name, "I can perfectly understand if you don't want to divulge the private details of your life to me, but please leave it to me to determine if I want to hear them." She tried to keep her voice gentle in the reproach; for she could that something was weighing heavily on his mind.
Mr. Brandan glanced at her sharply and asked, "Do you then?"
"If it will comfort you to tell me."
"Cold comfort, indeed. But perhaps you're right. I shall tell you, but only if you promise secrecy, for another's reputation is concerned."
"We have just met, so you have no reason to trust my word, but you have it." Margaret replied solemnly, curiosity nearly equaling a desire to help her new acquaintance.
"Very well then. You know Miss Julia Livingston, perhaps?"
"I know of her, yes."
"We been acquainted for a long time, and lately I have found that the regard I've always had for her has...deepened. All of her friends assured me that she would accept my proposal, and I had been so certain of it myself that it came as a rather cruel blow when she rejected me yesterday." He turned away from her, seeming overcome with emotion.
Margaret, full of pity and, although never having been rejected in a proposal, sympathizing completely, could only murmur, "I am so sorry," and stand by awkwardly.
After a moment Mr. Brandan turned back to her and said in an almost composed tone, "You should return inside. It is highly improper for you to remain here, and I would not wish to spoil your evening."
"It is no trouble at all, I assure you," Margaret began, but he cut her off in a commanding tone she felt she couldn't disobey,
"Please go, Miss Huston."
Margaret left the balcony, but not without a determination of helping Mr. Brandan in some way. Observing the group of ladies who had surrounded him earlier she saw none other then Louisa Richardson standing on the fringes. An animated conversation seemed to be in progress, and every once in a while Louisa would try to enter into it in some way only to be ignored. Margaret almost pitied her. Then the group started moving, in a flurry of muslin and lace, to where Julia Livingston was still standing uncomfortably. She seemed to observe them as well, which made her look even more agitated, but she stayed in place as they approached. Margaret, seeing an opportunity, slipped unobtrusively behind them standing next to Anna Preston and trying not to get noticed by the only person among them who knew her. Looking over several shoulders she saw Julia Livingston, a slightly plump but very pretty girl, weathering a barrage of questions. She seemed ready to cry.
"Really, my dear Julia," the woman Miss King had identified as Lady Caroline Ashwood was saying, "I simply can't believe it! Did you really refuse Brandan? Why, it's simply unbelievable!"
"As you said already, Caroline," commented either Sophia or Giselle Bordeaux, with a slight smile. Lady Caroline waved her off,
"Yes, yes. But did you really refuse him, Julia? Amazing! I always thought you liked him."
"I do like him," Miss Livingston managed to answer.
"What isn't there to like?" laughed a lady Margaret thought could be Miss Garwood or Miss Rivers, "He's rich, handsome, pleasant enough. And yet you refused him, silly girl. Did you suppose he'd ask you again? I can assure you he won't! Men don't like that sort of thing."
"They most certainly don't!" rejoined Catherine Williams, and Margaret found herself wondering why ladies possessing such acute knowledge of men's hearts were still unmarried. "Well, Julia, you must have had a very good reason for what you did. Do tell us." There were giggles all around and Miss Livingston blushed very becomingly,
"I like him, very much, but as a friend only. I don't love him."
"Love?" cried one of the Bordeaux sisters, "Is that what you believe necessary for marriage? How foolish of you! If you continue with these notions, you will remain a spinster, that I guarantee!"
There were cries of "How very true!" and "I couldn't have put it better myself!" all around until Julia Livingston finally burst into tears and begged they would excuse her. Margaret longed to go after her, but knew it would be completely inappropriate. She stayed only long enough to hear Lady Caroline say,
"Poor girl! But it is only in her best interests. She shall never find a husband if she doesn't start to see things realistically."
Then, feeling thoroughly disgusted with the majority of her sex, Margaret left them.
She went out to the balcony again, wanting to communicate what she had heard to Mr. Brandan. He was still there, standing at the railing.
"Mr. Brandan?" she ventured.
"You again?" he answered rather rudely, but she was ready to excuse him.
"Miss Livingston says she does like you, but as a friend only." Margaret said simply, wishing to give at least a sliver of hope.
"I wish you hadn't asked her," was her only, rather curt, reply.
"I did not," she said and softly went out again, not wishing to disturb his solitude any longer.
When Margaret went to bed that night she was certain that sleep would claim her the second her head hit the pillow. However, it eluded her, as she lay awake, thinking over the events of the night.
She felt terrible for Mr. Brandan. It was obvious that Miss Livingston's rejection, Miss Livingston who, if it were not for the fact that she had caused so much pain to him, Margaret was rather inclined to like, must have hit him very hard. Even without more substantial experience than a few childhood attachments, she felt that she understood him completely. Standing there on the balcony in such obvious agony with the moonlight shining on him, he seemed almost a hero in one of those novels Mr. Thornton so disliked.
With such a beginning, her thoughts couldn't be controlled in the direction they took. Mr. Brandan must be going through such a difficult time, she reasoned, he must need someone to comfort him, and who better than the person to whom he had chosen to confide his troubles? Perhaps she could be his friend, and help him to forget Miss Livingston. And perhaps...
In did not take her much time and thought, until with a curious mixture of pain and joy, she was convinced that she had fallen in love.
Rachel woke up the next morning unexpected early, and found it impossible to go back to sleep. The rest of the household hadn't yet woken after the tiring night, and she was left to her own devices. Dressing she went outside, deciding a walk before breakfast would best invigorate her and get rid of the nagging feeling that she wasn't quite happy.
The street outside the Hustons' house was deserted at this early hour, and she was sure that there was no one to observe the impropriety of a young woman walking out alone. With nothing to distract her, her thoughts wandered to unpleasant subjects, and with a slightly petulant stamp of her foot, she quickened her pace.
"Now, what would a lovely young lady be doing out alone, and in such obvious distress?" came an unexpected masculine voice from behind, and whirling around she saw a gentleman in elegant, if somewhat worn attire approaching her, a walking stick on which he leaned a bit more than indicated by mere fashion in hand, and an amused expression on his face.
Mustering all the righteous indignation she could, Rachel drew herself up stiffly and replied, "That is not your concern, sir. Kindly get on with your business and let me get on with mine."
However, instead of letting her be, the gentleman gave a slightly crooked grin and remarked, "Business? Your upset and somewhat childish behavior a moment ago seemed to imply that you have nothing of the kind."
"That does not concern you."
"So I have heard. But since we have met, let us be proper and introduce ourselves. Henry Smith at your service, madam." He bowed over her hand, which she looked ready to snatch away, with an elaborate flourish.
"Rachel Huston," she said with a small nod, "May I be excused at this time?'
Mr. Smith however, leaned back on his walking stick and gazed at her languidly, seeming to have absolutely no intention of letting her go.
"What an unfortunate beginning! I don't suppose you like me very much, Miss Huston?"
Seeing no way out of her embarrassing situation other than being totally frank, Rachel replied, "No, I do not. Now, pray excuse me, I believe my mother will have need of me at this time." She turned on her heel and walked briskly to her house, not giving him a chance to reply.
Breakfast was eaten silently, both sisters too deep in their own reflections to notice much about them. One bit of news was communicated, however, when Mrs. Huston noted that they had been invited to dine with the Richardsons the next day.
It was the families' first direct meeting since their arrival in London, but the only ones looking forward to it were the senior members of the party. After dinner they quickly formed a card party, talking over the events of the previous week. Rachel, Margaret, and Louisa Richardson were excused from playing, as it was certain that they had much to discuss.
This fact did not assert itself for a few moments, until Miss Richardson began with a too-bright smile,
"Lovely weather we have had lately. I do hope it is the same in the country!"
"For your sister's sake, so do I," replied Margaret coldly.
"Of course. I was just taking advantage of it yesterday, walking with Mamma, when who should we chance to meet...!"
"I am all curiosity," said Margaret.
"Mr. Brandan, of course! You might remember him from that lovely dance dear Mrs. King had a few days ago, although I'm certain you didn't talk to him."
Margaret's interest really was engaged by now and trying not to appear too eager, she inquired, "How wonderful for you. Did he say much to you?"
Louisa looked pleased, "Of course! He was ever so attentive, it really was a shock! He offered to join us on our walk, and I accepted, of course. A more pleasant conversation you simply can't imagine! Oh dear, he was so very kind, and as much as promised to call tomorrow."
Margaret, feeling a bit faint, and terribly unhappy, said no more and let Rachel continue the rather uncomfortable discourse.
"Dearest, what's wrong?" asked Rachel after they returned home, "You seemed so subdued, I hope Louisa didn't upset you with her wild tales of conquest."
"Are they really so wild?" answered Margaret sadly. She sat, not even pretending to read the book she held, full of deep melancholy which she knew she ought to feel and so, did.
"Of course!" cried her sister, "Why does it bother you so much, now. I know you aren't fond of her, but never have you been so upset. Please tell me all, perhaps I can help."
"That is doubtful, however, I do need to confide in you. Despite Louisa's assumptions, I did meet Mr. Brandan, and...I find myself...I believe...Oh, Rachel, I love him!" she finished, near tears.
Rachel didn't contradict her, or ask more question, but simply walked over and comforted her while she cried.
After the powerful emotions of the day Margaret retired early, leaving her sister alone before the fire in silent reflection. There was a pianoforte in the room, and as she could play as well as any properly brought up young lady, that is to say tolerably, Rachel sat down at it, letting her fingers run over the keys.
By all outwards appearances she was perfectly calm, but inside her emotions were in turmoil. Margaret, in love with Mr. Brandan! Poor dear, after one meeting she could not know him. But yes, Rachel could understand her feelings. After all, had it not been a similar attachment that had nearly broken her heart the previous year? She would not be so foolish again, but Margaret...Margaret must be allowed to make her own mistakes. Much as she wished to prevent the pain she was sure would come, much as she wished to guide her, Rachel knew with a wisdom only an older sister could possess that her sister would not be persuaded. Poor, poor Margaret, she thought sadly as she played a few plaintive notes. Then, with a sigh, she put an end to such thoughts, knowing their futility.
She really had been foolish that morning, Rachel pondered idly, what if someone she knew had seen her wandering about? As it was, she had been seen. Mr. Smith, such a curious gentleman. And most disagreeable, she added indignantly. Yes, Rachel thought, Mr. Smith was really extremely disagreeable...
As Mrs. Huston had predicted they soon received several invitations, leaving the mother in raptures and Margaret nervous and anxious, willing Mr. Brandan to be at Lady Wood's garden party, which they would attend in several days.
It was a lovely day for a garden party, as the days of extremely rich ladies' garden parties invariably were. The guests strolled about, enjoying refreshments and light conversation amidst the flowers, and the gathering had all the signs of being a very pretty social success.
Margaret, however, could not notice any of this as her eyes scanned the crowd for Mr. Brandan. This was in vain, however, for in the end it was he who came across her quite abruptly, with his accompaniment of young ladies behind him.
It was an awkward meeting, for Margaret kept expecting some particular greeting from one who had so bared his soul to her, and Mr. Brandan was simply quite embarrassed.
She smiled at him eagerly, extending a hand and saying with a light blush, "Oh, Mr. Brandan, how wonderful it is to see you again!"
Mr. Brandan shuffled his feet uncomfortably, ignoring her hand and in the end answered formally, "Miss Huston, I trust your family is well?"
Margaret withdrew her hand and her smile faded slightly but she replied politely, "My family is perfect health, thank you. Have you met you my sister?" she added, thinking this the only reason for such a strange inquiry.
"No, I have not had that pleasure. If you will excuse me, Miss Huston?"
"Why certainly," said Margaret with a hurt look, and let the group pass. As they went away she heard one of the ladies remark,
"Yes, acquainted with that bothersome Richardson girl. Yes, I agree, she was most disagreeable at dear Mrs. King's, and after Brandan ever since, he has complained about it terribly. A younger sister to come out next year too, I hear. Two such Miss Richardsons on the market, how miserable our lives shall be!"
She was relieved to hear Louisa's stories were really as farfetched as Rachel said, but not too much so, for she had never been completely taken in. Their unkind manner of talking about her shocked Margaret however, and she could only hope that Mr. Brandan was not capable of such cruelty, indeed could not believe him to be so.
Rachel meanwhile, was strolling with a friend she had met in the previous season, an exuberant, cheerful girl who had since married well, and told her of her good fortune without a touch of malice and with frequent assurances of how very lucky Rachel was to be single with no capricious husband to look after. The conversation could give only pain, however, and much as she loved her friend she was not sorry to see her leave for more refreshments.
It was during this brief interlude of solitude that she happened upon Mr. Henry Smith.
"Why, Miss Huston!" he said with amused surprise, "I seem to always be happening upon you walking alone. I do hope you won't hold it against me!"
Rachel, looked at him severely but couldn't help retorting, "Why should I, when I have so many other things to use for that purpose?"
Mr. Smith laughed good-naturedly, "Do you indeed? And what may they be?"
"You lack of manners, for instance."
"Now really, you wound me unjustly. Was it not I who insisted upon us introducing ourselves at our first meeting? You did not seem inclined for such pleasantries, I had to shoulder the burden with no help at all."
Rachel's countenance lightened slightly, a fact she would have corrected if she had been aware of it, "But was it not you who held me captive when any proper gentleman would have clearly seen that I didn't desire the company?"
"And did you think yourself so very proper, walking out alone at such an early hour?"
She had no reply for a moment, and only glared at him, although it was a much more friendly glared that she thought herself capable of.
"Ha!" Mr. Smith cried triumphantly, "I do believe I have you stumped."
"Oh no, Mr. Smith, I simple wished to refrain from continuing such a foolish discourse."
"Was it really so foolish?" He stepped a bit closer to her and his tone became graver, "And please, call me Henry."
This was enough to startle Rachel out of her pleasant mood and crying, "I don't believe that would be at all proper, Mr. Smith," she fled in search of her friend.
Henry Smith looked after her, shaking his head ruefully, "Not at all as cool and composed as she'd like to believe," he gave a short laugh, "And not at all what I expected!"
Upon returning home from the party the Hustons found a letter from Emma Richardson. Margaret, in terribly ill spirits, told Rachel to read it as she reclined on the sofa, head and heart full of Mr. Brandan.
Her sister opened the letter and scanned the contents, "There are several pages in response to your report of the dance, you can read that at your leisure. But here, a passage that might interest you,
You will be surprised to hear that we received a letter from my brother a few days ago. He is back in England and plans to visit us in a few weeks. I am terribly anxious, as you might imagine, having been such a very small girl when he last came because of his injury. I simply can't wait to meet him.
Now for some news that must be of more interest to you. Mr. Thornton came yesterday, to tell of his plan to go to Town within a fortnight, and thus depriving me of my only current advantage over you. He seems to have some business there, I didn't quite understand what, and he wants me to relay to you that he will call as soon as he can upon his arrival. Send him my well wishes when he comes."
"Mr. Thornton! Come here!" cried Margaret, leaping off the sofa and taking the letter to be certain, "How wonderful! I should love to have a friend to talk to rid my mind of these sad reflections. Not that you aren't helpful, Rachel. Oh, this is lovely!" She was remarkable cured of her melancholy for the rest of the day.
© 2000 Copyright held by the author.